KABUL, Afghanistan -- When Hamid Karzai's opponents quit the race for Afghan head of state at this week's loya jirga, many Afghans saw it as a sign of heavy-handed U.S. interference in what was supposed to be an all-Afghan selection process.
"Everything seems to have been decided. But, we don't need anyone to decide for us," delegate Asella Wardak complained Wednesday. "We have had enough of foreign interference in our country."
Secretary of State Colin Powell has denied the United States is manipulating the loya jirga -- the grand council convened to establish a new transitional government. Powell said in Washington on Tuesday that the American role was limited to creating the conditions under which the 1,550 Afghan delegates could "find their way into the future in accordance with their traditions and their processes."
However, Sam Zarifi, of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, accused the Bush administration of "brazen" interference in the loya jirga, which had been promoted as the birth of Afghan democracy.
The controversy over the American role at the loya jirga erupted Monday because of U.S. efforts to resolve a power struggle between ethnic Tajiks from the former northern alliance and Pashtun followers of the former monarch, Mohammad Zaher Shah.
Although the ex-king had indicated for months he did not want to restore the monarchy, support for him was growing among delegates who saw Zaher Shah as the only figure capable of unifying this factious country after 23 years of war.
However, an ethnic Tajik clique from the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul had long opposed any role for the aged former monarch. The Panjshiris, who led the northern alliance and maintain a powerful position in the interim government, had long suspected that Zaher Shah's close aides would try to install him as head of state.
Those fears were heightened when Saddar Wali, the former king's son-in-law, said in a statement last weekend that Zaher Shah would play whatever role the loya jirga requested of him.
According to a European official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, an ethnic Tajik, warned Karzai late Sunday that his faction's delegates would withdraw from the loya jirga unless the former king guaranteed he would seek no political post. He also threatened to place his troops on alert.
With a major crisis developing, the opening session of the loya jirga was postponed by a day as meetings were held to resolve the conflict. On Monday afternoon, the special U.S. envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, told a news conference the former monarch wanted no role in the new government and would say so in a statement.
Hours later, Khalilzad sat with Zaher Shah, Karzai and Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah while an aide to the former monarch read a statement disavowing any role in the new government. The following day, the head of the northern alliance, Burnahuddin Rabbani, also bowed out of the race for head of state, leaving Karzai as the sole major candidate.
The United States has long supported Karzai, an urbane Pashtun fluent in English whose siblings live in the Washington area. Before Rabbani dropped out, Khalilzad appeared at the loya jirga site Monday night where, according to international officials, he lobbied delegates to support Karzai.
Khalilzad acknowledged visiting the site but said he was mobbed by delegates seeking his opinion. He also denied applying pressure on Zaher Shah to make his statement.
Other Western officials in Kabul say the United States has a special interest in seeing that the loya jirga approves a government to its liking because of the search for Taliban and al-Qaida fugitives.
The United States was strongly criticized for supporting Muslim fighters in their war against the Soviets in the 1980s, then losing interest in the country after Moscow withdrew its troops in 1989. Many of those same men are currently participating in the loya jirga.
Afghans have a long history of rejecting anything that smacks of foreign domination. A government seen to be dictated by the United States could have trouble winning broad acceptance.
"Our American friends and allies have two agendas at the same time," said Klaus-Peter Klaiber, the European Union representative. "And that is very difficult to do."
Finance Minister Amin Arsala told The Associated Press he feared backroom deals had denied delegates a chance to make their own choices for the transitional government. Seema Samar, the minister of women's affairs, called the loya jirga a "rubber stamp," saying all the decisions had been made in advance.
"But the Americans are not so well acquainted with Afghan society," said Aqmal, whose daughter is a loya jirga delegate. "They are backing the groups with the weapons, but it could be a problem for them later."
On the streets of Kabul, however, some people felt international pressure was not an altogether bad thing, given the country's recent history.
"Sometimes our leaders left to themselves will fight and nothing will get done," said Yar Mohammed. "This will bring them together. America is good."